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Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Modern Muslim Theology

By Prof. Ali Amir

Modern science and technology were introduced to the Muslim world in the form of strange, unknown military equipments that resulted in defeat by the western powers and led to the occupation of their land by non-Muslim invaders. The colonizers claimed that adherence to Islam was responsible for the intellectual backwardness and hence weakness of the Muslim World. It was explicitly advocated that Muslim World’s progress towards modernity required neglecting or even abandoning Islam. French philosopher, Ernest Renan (1832-1892) posited absolute incompatibility between Islam and both science and philosophy.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), Jamaluddin Afghani (1838-1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1848-1905) responded by relating the backwardness of Muslims not to Islam per se, but to contemporary Muslim misunderstanding of Islam. The basic question that confronted these modernist Muslim reformers was Islam’s compatibility with modern science and philosophy. How could a faithful Muslim live in a modern socio-political environment without losing his or her identity as a Muslim?

Sir Syed was the first Indian Muslim modernist who tried to present the view that Quran should occupy central place in guiding the behavior of Muslims, as against the dominant role of the prophetic traditions generally accepted by the Ulma. This was intended primarily to create space for interpretation of the Quran in rationalist modern term, while also eradicating superstitions so prevalent in Muslim societies. He proposed that the Quran stand on its own, requiring only application of dedicated and enlightened mind for its understanding. For him the great miracle of the Quran is its universality which allows every generation to find in it the meaning relevant to its situation, despite the constant increase in human knowledge. Hadith-based interpretation tends to limit the meaning of Quran to a particular situation, that obscuring the universality.

This approach led Sir Syed to a critical examination of the second source of Islamic knowledge, the Sunnah. However, this is not to say that he rejected Sunnah altogether, even though the Hadith is considered to be the major carrier of Sunnah. Sir Syed stressed on the Quranic universality versus Sunnah historicity. He emphasized that the Quran is the exclusively authentic divine source while Hadith is an auxiliary source subject to historical criticism. However, Sir Syed’s emphasis on biography of the Prophet clearly indicates that Quranic principles and divine values were idealized in the life of the Prophet to whom Quran was revealed. Thus the Prophetic biographic event also acquires universal applications to a great extent.

This challenged the classical position whereby Hadith was held as Sunnah to be a form of revelation equal to Quran in authority, though different in form. One of the more interesting outcomes of this debate around the authenticity of Hadith has been the emergence of attempt to separate the issue of Sunna authority from that of the historical authenticity of Hadith criticism.

Thus, the results of modern Hadith criticism were, at least in part, accepted, while the authenticity of Sunnah, in principle preserved. The rediscovery of rationalist approach in Muslim Theology (Ilm-e-Kalam) by Sir Syed proved to be path breaking in understanding of Quran and Islam by subsequent generation to come.

[Prof. Ali Amir is Chairperson, Department of Community Medicine, J.N. Medical College, AMU, Aligarh & Former President AMUSU (1982). He can be reached at [email protected]]

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